By Chinta Strausberg
Reverend Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition staff gave St. Clair Joseph Booker, Sr. a profound homegoing service Wednesday, April 21, at the national headquarters where the 94-year-old longtime volunteer served for more than 50 years.
The homegoing service was more like being in church, with singers such as Santita Jackson, Jackson’s daughter, and Darius Brooks performing. The service resembled a PUSH family reunion, only this time they were honoring one of the organization’s greatest volunteers and father figures.
One by one, visitors passed the open coffin, looking down on the man many called ‘Father,’ though St. Clair Booker had no biological children. Some rubbed his chest and squeezed his hands for the last time, weeping, while some described him as he lay in the casket, as looking like “he was sleeping.”
Booker, born February 4, 1927, in Chicago, was married to Audrey Cloyd for 67 years. She preceded him in death, and to many they were the role models of what a married couple should be, and they became surrogate parents to scores of men and women across this nation.
Not having children didn’t stop Booker from being a surrogate father, including to former U.S. Representative Jesse L. Jackson, Jr., and Jonathan Jackson.
Reverend Jackson called Booker, “A lover of children, a lover of people,” a man he said was “disciplined and beautiful. He was the big brother I never had… He was like family.”
“I want to thank you, St. Clair, for being the father to my children and all you did to help us and with dignity.”
In reflecting on Booker, Jesse Jackson, Jr. said, “From my earliest recollection, I was blessed with two fathers, one as tough as a serpent and one as harmless as a dove.” He called Booker “tough” and his father, “tender,” but as he got older, Jackson said he realized that Booker “also maintained a tenderness about himself.”
Booker, Jackson said, helped to shape him into being who he is today. “St., a tough authoritarian, came to your house and told you to put on your shoes and slippers, every time he entered and if you failed to do so, he would impose serious corporal punishment at the end of a belt or strap.
“Who gives someone a whipping for not wearing shoes at their own home?” “Who does that to somebody else’s kids?” asked Jesse Jackson, Jr.
Booker’s niece, Nicole Knighten Baldwin, said, “I’m going to miss being his chauffeur, his shield when someone was getting on his nerves…, but most of all when he introduced me as his child.
“I know he is right where he wants to be” with his family “and all the saints who passed our way and had the good fortune to know and love St. Clair Booker…,” Baldwin said. And, when she dies and gets to the Pearly Gates, Baldwin said she can hear Booker saying, “Here comes my child.”
Booker’s pastor, Reverend Derrick Anderson, said he was a “picket captain, a freedom fighter, a businessman, Reverend Jackson’s travel companion, but who he was at his very essence and core was God’s child. Yes, with all his faults, fragilities and failures, he was still God’s child, and God sustained his child for 94 years.”
“St. took me under his wings when I was a kid, and after I was old enough to work for the organization (the Rainbow PUSH Coalition), he mentored me,” said Anderson.
He said Booker told him he would travel with Reverend Jackson if it did not become a problem with his wife and that in 1982 “it must have, because he trained me and I became Reverend Jackson’s travelling partner,” Anderson recalled. Booker, he said, taught him everything he knows about security, travel and logistics. “I will never forget the impact he made on my life,” Anderson said.
“We all have been on the receiving end of St.’s colorful assessments about people, places and things, and you may like to think you were his favorite, but I need to tell you that you were often the subject of St.’s analysis…. Whatever his analysis of me was, I found favor in his sight when he submitted to my leadership and joined my church. He was proud to call me his pastor, and I loved to hear him tell people, “this is my pastor. I raised this boy.”
“St. used to cuss me out, and then rub the back of my head and say, ‘Did you get it son?” Anderson said Booker was faithful to his church until his wife, Audrey, became ill. “He was faithful to his wife, faithful to the ministry and faithful to this organization.”
Anderson told the story about the January 3, 2006, incident involving 13 coalminers trapped in the mines of West Virginia. They all died, but one left a note in his pocket that said, “Leave this for my family. For my family, the trip wasn’t bad, I just went to sleep, and I’ll see them on the other side.”
Anderson added, “I can hear St. calling back from the spirit world saying to tell ya’ll the trip isn’t bad. I just went to sleep, and I’ll see ya’ll on the other side.”
Periodically wiping away tears, Jona- than Jackson said, “Uncle Booker” was born in 1927 when no white man had been convicted of lynching a Black man or raping a Black woman in America. Soon after, Blacks began the Great Migration coming to Chicago.”
Jonathan Jackson said he has always been surrounded by men, especially Booker, to mentor him. He said Booker was loyal to the very end. Jackson quoted Booker who always said, “You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken remains.” Booker, he said, “never turned his back on his people or his friends…. He was loyal to the end.”
Booker once worked at the Union Carbide Company and as a result he became the first Black urban executive at the National Tea Company. He also worked at the Dial Chemical Company where he caught the entrepreneurial spirit that led him on another career journey.
Booker often said, “I asked the Lord for a Cadillac, and he blessed me with Cadillacs.” He would also say, “You have not, because you ask not.” Booker expanded his business and began the MIST vending machine service.
In 1966, God had another path for Booker to travel. While on a picket line Booker met Reverend Jackson, who asked him to join his SCLC program, Operation Breadbasket, now named the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.
He quickly became the one volunteer who had the best picket line.
He and Jackson forged a strong bond, so much so that he became like a second father to the Jacksons’ children, and as former Representative Jackson said, he would come in your house and whip you. “Who does that,” mused Jackson.
Jonathan Jackson said when they saw Booker coming, they would run and put on their shoes and make sure they were dressed because the task master would give them a tongue-lashing or whip their behinds.
Omar Shareef, building superintendent for the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, remembers Booker.
“My kids and I have been there for more than 20 years. He would always tell me what a good job I was doing helping Reverend Jackson.
One time I bought 100 memberships and St. Clair told me I was the only one to do that except him. He was always encouraging me.”
Former Georgia Congressman Kwanza Hall praised his uncle, calling Booker a father figure. “He was always around in the summers for sure and had that same stern personality. He was a very tough and serious gentleman.
He gave us the way to be. I am so grateful that he touched so many lives,” Hall said, while thanking Jackson for the profound funeral services.